Baltimore-based ambient and new-school Kosmische guitar musician PJ Dorsey, better known as Tarotplane, joins us for the 26th edition of the Off The Record Mix Series. If you’re not yet familiar with his music, be sure to check out his phenomenal albums ‘Horizontology’ on 12th Isle and ‘358 Oblique’ on Lullabies For Insomniacs to name just two.
His recording below features gems from O Yuki Conjugate, Iury Lech, Michael Banabila, Cabaret Du Ciel, Suzanne Kraft, and many more. Check out PJ’s in-depth interview below. Enjoy!
Hi PJ, thanks for joining us! Can you tell us about your recording and what the idea was behind it…
This mix got me thinking about the importance of record stores in my life and how they were so totally crucial in how I think about music. I was always going to record shops from the time I was really young. My dad would drop me off, and I would spend an hour or two just pouring over the bins. I was really into both ‘60 psychedelia and postpunk scene (it was called new wave then…), and I generally bought things based on how the covers looked. Because of people like Hipgnosis, Peter Saville, and Roger Dean, I typically did pretty well.
I got my first record store job in 1986. That shop was called Vinyl Discoveries, and we were one of the only underground shops in the area. My boss was a man named Bart Roberts, and he was a complete psychedelic music obsessive. The store brought me in, because I was really into United Dairies and Current 93 and that kind of thing. I recall getting 10 of the 100 copies of “Drunk With The Old Man In The Mountains” by Nurse With Wound, and we became a hub for that kind of music on the East Coast. The really odd and wonderful thing is that we had a record shop literally next door to us owned by a man named David Hodgson. It was called Playing by Ear. Our shop and his were affiliated in a small way, because I think there was some co-ownership involved. Our store sold all pretty much rock music in all its forms, while David’s shop had a specialization in progressive rock, new age, classical, folk, and the style of music that you will find in this mix. This music was really interesting to me because I could hear that it had elements of many different types of genre (jazz, progressive, new age, classical), but it was none of those things in and of itself.
I have always been obsessed with the idea of “genre.” It occurred to me as I was writing this that it came from the delineations between our two shops. There must have been a discussion of who sold what, and there was a sensibility of where things fit together. I think I have always tried to figure out, since then, who would have sold what when I hear certain types of music.
Another interesting thing about this shop is that to my 20-year-old self it was a very “grown up” shop. Everything was neat and tidy. They sold insanely expensive audio equipment. They had a Michell Gyrodec SE turntable as the focal point of the setup. They had an espresso machine as well. It felt very grown up and aspirational to the 20-year-old me. Very highly curated and very much an extension of David’s personal taste. All of the vintage records were pristine, because he was very fussy in that way. I picked up immaculate copies of original pressings from labels like Ohr, Bla-Bla, and Vertigo.
Outside of the fact it had no plants, or incense, Playing By Ear would fit in nicely with some of the shops of today. Would certainly get an article in Record Culture. In many ways, the shop Commend in NYC or In Sheep’s Clothing in LA seem very similar to it. However, the people who work there are very nice, and PBE definitely had an ‘80s record shop edge to it. Lots of judgment and snark. I recall listening to Talk Talk’s “Spirit Of Eden” in my shop because we sold it, not him. It blew our minds at the time, the dynamics of the whole record. That was one of the records that I think should have been in his shop, not ours.
The record that is kind of the lynchpin of this mix and one that is emblematic of this music, is one that I purchased from him by Michel Banabila called “Des Traces Retrouvees.” I sold my record collection years back, but I kept this one, because it symbolizes something important to me. I recently purchased the book Obscure Sound by Chee Shimizu. This helped me to see the connections between these styles a little better and bring them into focus. David’s shop was very much a living embodiment of that book. All of the tracks in this mix can be traced back to that time in the ‘80s for me, in one way or another.
Could you tell us a little bit about your background, perhaps where you grew up and what first got you interested in music?
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. Pretty normal upbringing for the most part. There were two major obsessions from the very beginning: music and football (soccer). Neither of these interests were shared by those around me, so I was left on my own to find out more about them. I was pretty much interested in music from the age of 6 and went straight for the classic-rock side of things and progressed from there. My dad is a great singer, but we had no music playing in our home, and it wasn’t something I absorbed there. My sister has very little interest in music either. A bit of a mystery, but it’s always been there . . . thankfully!
I started making music when I was young, but I got very frustrated with it and put the guitar down when I was in my late 20s. I didn’t pick it up again until I turned 40.
I worked in record shops from the time I was 20 until I was 42. As I mentioned before, I picked up a lot of records back then, but I came to a point in my life where I wasn’t happy with my direction. I went to a local shop called Modern Music, who were the shop affiliated with the rave scene but also the industrial scene at that time (1992-93) and they also had the new ambient music. I had heard Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works,” and it blew my mind, so I wanted to find out everything about this new sound. They didn’t have a mail order at the time, so I took my personal collection and sold it off to start it. Selling music over the internet was new, but it really took off. We specialized in ambient/IDM and we were one of the first shops in the states to sell things like Boards of Canada, Fax Records, all the Rephlex and Worm Interface stuff. They also put on shows. We had a lot of great artists come over. We even did an Autechre show around ‘96. It was so successful that I then left Modern Music to start my own mailorder called s://kimo. As you might be able to gather from the name, the web was such a novelty then you could have a name like mine and people thought it was great. A bit cringe now as they say . . . I kept that going until the dark times of the early 2000s where everyone downloaded illegally, and the sale of actual physical copies of records became pretty impossible for a few years. I started a new line of work, but then I took up guitar again because I missed the musical part of my life, and here we are now.
I was saying to a friend the other day in relation to actual record stores that it’s so important to stroll up to the counter and speak to a dude who knows. David was the dude who knew in my world, and this mix is about him and my personal Baltimore music story. So many of these places are completely lost to history. Nothing even shows up in Google searches really. Even my old store s://kimo, while not completely lost to the sands of time, is barely there. It’s important to memorialize these places while we can. I’m happy to say now that record shops are more diverse and welcoming to everyone. People behind the counters are more representative of the public at large. Multiracial, multigender, and not so homogeneous in look or opinion. The record shop of old could sometimes create a terrible groupthink and it was way too male in outlook. Some of the best ears I know belong to women, and it’s vital that they get to impart their wisdom and experience.
Tell us a bit about the city you inhabit, Baltimore, how does the music scene there compare to some of the other major cities in the US, such as New York or Los Angeles?
It is much much smaller in size, and while I love it dearly, it’s not nearly as cosmopolitan as those places. It’s a port town, deeply weird to its core, and lots of original, amazing people live here or call Baltimore home. I think having John Waters, “The Wire,” and Edgar Allen Poe as your three major cultural exports gives you some idea. Beautiful, odd, and more than a little dangerous. When I was young I got a chance to go to Glasgow, and they remind me of each other (or the ‘80s version of Glasgow anyway).
The music scene here was very sleepy and not very diverse for a long time. Things changed in a big way when Dan Deacon moved to Baltimore in 2004. He brought a lot of his friends from his college in upstate New York. They all moved into an old industrial space called the Copycat Building and formed the Wham City collective. That changed a lot and then all of a sudden we had a truly amazing scene unlike anything that happened before. Bands like Celebration, Beach House, Future Islands, etc., blew up. Around this same time, the San Francisco group Matmos moved to Baltimore, and this really added momentum to the avant garde/experimental improv scene here. Now Baltimore is kind of a hotbed for the odd and angular. The High Zero festival has been going for more than 20 years now and hosts improvisors from all over the world. Sadly, just before the pandemic, a lot of Baltimore acts that had been really central ended up leaving, Horse Lords being the most notable. They left for Berlin. For me they were the heavyweight champs of this town. My friend John (AV Moves/Nerftoss) left for LA, which bummed me out, because he’s a great guy and also really important for the electronic scene here. Bonnie Jones, who was central to the avant scene, moved to Providence, Rhode Island, so a lot of losses for us
Are there any hot new Baltimore-based musicians/producers coming up through the ranks that we ought to know about?
Well, I think we are in a rebuilding process. I’m not a big man about town and have always worked from home. I was never a big part of “the scene,” but I do have some vague sense of what’s going on. In the ascendancy now are the band Smoke Bellow. They have a great new record on Trouble in Mind, and they’re lovely people to boot. There is a guy named Colloboh who has a new record on Leaving Records, and he’s dynamite. Great IDM-style stuff. Very advanced. There’s a newish venue called Fadensonnen that is hosting nice DJ nights and some live acts. They are more on the edge of the scene that I identify with. My friend Colin runs that, along with his record store E2E4.
I think Baltimore will continue to be an important place for music in the future. We have MICA, which is one of the finest art schools in the country, and it always seems to bring new fresh ideas. I think we are also moving into a less indie-rock, more electronic direction, which I heartily welcome.
What would you say are some of your all-time favourite record labels?
Factory, 4ad, No CD, United Dairies, Ohr, Music From Memory, Blackest Ever Black, FAX, Fetish, Cherry Red, Dandelion
What does the rest of 2021 and the beginning of 2022 have in store for you?
Lots of guest mixes have been sprouting up, which I love. My monthly show on Dublab.de. I have a new track on a compilation on Temple Records out of Montreal, which I am looking forward to. I have a new LP coming next year on the Impatience label called “Light Self All Others.” I am also working on a new one for 2022 (I hope) on a new British label Tonight’s Dream. Putting the tracks together now. No title at this point
Last but not least, I am helping with the second archival release by Doug McKechnie on VG+ Records. That’s been a real honor, because Doug’s work is only now being discovered. He was one of the first people outside academic circles to have a modular Moog in 1968. He played in the psychedelic ballrooms in San Francisco. He was the first person to use a sequencer in the manner we use it today. I always thought that was Tangerine Dream, but I was blown away to learn the Moog he used in the ‘60s was sold to T Dream during the early Virgin period and became a center piece of their sound. It’s very humbling to be part of a project that helps to re-define electronic music history.